I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – to me good books are all about CHARACTER. I don’t care if the characters in question are “sympathetic” or not, I just demand that they be interesting and credible, and nothing proves this literary maxim more than the genre generally considered the least literary, True Crime. In most True Crime there isn’t the standard intermediary of the virtuous detective mediating between the reader and the horrible deed, there’s just the victim, the institutions of justice, and most crucially, the criminal. The hook for True Crime is the inevitable question Who would do a thing like that? In the right hands, the reader can understand the person and their character, the flaws that brought them to cross the line, and, while not condoning it, can even begin to be able to conceive of the unthinkable. Ann “Golden” Rule is the ruler and yardstick of this world, and it was really her encounter with Ted Bundy, a man she called friend until she learned he was a serial killer, that gave her the insight to elevate a True Confessions type scribbler into the triumphant author of the ground breaking The Stranger Beside Me and from there to a string of excellent and best selling True Crime, the latest of which, Too Late to Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and Betrayal, is hitting the stores just as you read this. It’s the realization that even worst monsters are fellow humans that gives the best of contemporary True Crime its depth and fascination.
One of the new writers who successfully follows the Rule template is Kathryn Casey, author of She Wanted it All and now Die, My Love. Both books have the central character of a histrionic, narcissistic, amoral, immature, attractive, magnetic train wreck of a woman who ends up wounding everyone around her. You get to know Die, My Love‘s Piper Jablin so well that you start thinking of her by her first name, and become sincerely grateful that you never met her. If there was ever a case of opposites attracting it was in her ill-starred marriage to her older professor Fred Jablin. He was a very organized, very conscientious, well, wonk, and she was a free spirit, artistic and spontaneous, but totally undisciplined. Whatever chemistry brought them together soon dissolved in the face of her wild spending, inability to hold a job, unfaithfulness, financial chicanery and total lack of guilt. Yet Fred tried to hold on to his marriage and the three children it produced, rationally exploring their problems, believing that his beloved logical reasoning could succeed with a person whose mental processes were as disordered as Piper’s. When he finally gave up, he used his powerful, disciplined methods to successfully get an alimony free divorce and gain custody of his children.
Piper was such a supreme egotist that she thought she didn’t have to work and expected to be constantly catered to. She considered herself a great Mom because she liked to play with her children like another child, even though she was unable to do the adult things like get them to school or the doctor’s. She felt unfairly persecuted when other people didn’t agree with her, and when that person was a judge that she couldn’t bully with her usual hysteria, a murderous rage against Fred was born, enabled by her similarly disturbed family. And of course a murderous plan conceived by the superior genius she considered herself to be could never be detected by those dolts the police, could it?
I always check a True Crime book to see when the trial begins. The later in the book the better, because trials are mostly about the lawyers and their competing scenarios, and often have little to do with the real crime and its perpetrator. If the rest of the canvas is presented clearly enough, the trial is just another detail and Casey gets that part of the formula right too, preferring a novelistic accumulation of history, biography and day to day details rather than sensational journalistic reportage of public events. The bad guys in mysteries are often inconsistently drawn plot devices who exist to surprise the reader when their identity is revealed, or stock serial killers who kill for overly conceptualized reasons. If you want to meet a real villain read Die, My Love because Piper Jablin is the kind of person who would do something like that. (Jamie)